Pedro Almodóvar, 1980
The films of idiosyncratic Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar have frequently been referred to as ‘exercises in camp’ – his oeuvre being recognised for its peculiar sensibility to the kitsch of everyday life. On his eccentric affiliation with camp, Almodóvar has remarked: “Camp makes you look at our human situation with irony”. The camp sensibility has been proper to Almodóvar’s aesthetic since the director’s very first cinematic efforts in the early 1980s. This historical moment proved rich and ripe for emerging Spanish artists: tentatively recovering from the political jolts of the 20th century – the disastrous Civic War of 1936-39, Franco’s totalitarian regime and the following decades of social unrest –, the Spanish youth finally returned into the streets of recently reawakened metropolitan cities such as Madrid. Francisco Franco’s military regime was established in 1937 and carried through for over 35 years. Fascist ideology had planted its roots so deep into Spanish society that its marks were still well evident years after the collapse of the regime: Franco had instilled a cultural ideology founded on gender segregation, machismo, female subordination and allowed no space for exhibition of sexual desire or sexual deviance. Almodóvar, ‘the enfant terrible’ of the so-called Móvida Madrileña, shared with many the urge to discover new artistic means to question this status quo – where observing the world through spoofy camp lenses represented more than an aesthetic tendency.
The notion of ‘Camp’ entered critical discourse upon the publication of Susan Sontag’s seminal article, Notes on Camp. Here, Sontag states: “It goes without saying that the camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized - or at last apolitical.” This brief analysis of the most iconic scenes of Pepi, Luci, Bom y Otras Chicas del Montón (1980) will reveal how camp comedy in early Almodóvar, often read à la Sontag – disengaged, apolitical – is rather an attempt at a subversive reworking of a traumatic past.
Susan Sontag argued for a camp aesthetic sensibility which ‘converts the serious into the frivolous’ and ‘sees everything in quotation marks’ Camp’s resistance to a proper critical definition has made it unmanageable to reduce its evanescent essence to a singular concept. Nonetheless, there exists a somewhat implicit agreement that camp recognises itself. Critic Jack Babuscio claims camp as an ironic perception of the world, where humour is a tool for re-elaborating social trauma and establishing a strong familiar bond among individuals. All the while, it is a strategy of protection from the hurt of what is mainstream, normative, outside its own circle of safety. Camp, therefore, is the product of a peculiar sense of fear and protection – ‘a bitter-wit’ – founded on the urge to redefine the terms of one’s oppression through satire. Babuscio states: “Camp can thus be a means of undercutting rage by its derision of concentrated bitterness. Its vision of the world is comic. Laughter, rather than tears, is its chosen means of dealing with the painfully incongruous situation of gays in society”.
Almodóvar brought his experimental camp aesthetic to the big screen with Pepi, Luci, Bom in 1980. The film features camp elements that are scattered all across the director’s early oeuvre: unconventional female characters, pornographic imagery, careless use of drugs, crossdressers and taboo fetishes, mashed with an over-the-top, all-colourful, cluttered mise-en-scène. Pepi, Luci, Bom is a story of female kinship which follows three seemingly incompatible women as they navigate the Spanish punk subculture of the ‘80s. Pepi (Carmen Maura) is violated by Luci’s policeman husband; she befriends the woman to avenge herself and the money she was hoping to gain by selling her virginity. Luci (Eva Siva), an apparently conventional housewife, is domestically oppressed according to Fascist standards. Yet, her verbally abusive husband is incapable of satisfying her fantasies of masochist submission. Luci finds fulfilment in a homosexual, S&M relationship with 16-year-old punk rock singer Bom (Olvido Gara), Pepi’s closest friend. The film revolves around this peculiar threesome, establishing a system of unusual hetero- and homo-sexual desires.
Some memorable moments in Pepi, Luci, Bom include: a lesbian ‘golden shower’, the ‘General Erections’ competition, a TV ad for ‘PUTON Panties’ and several cross-dressing performances. The ‘General Erections’ sequence constitutes a moment of nonsensical narrative suspension, simultaneously satirising Spain’s unsteady quest for democracy upon the collapse of Franco’s regime and the traditional ‘heterosexual couple’ placed at the centre of fascist ideology. Pepi, Luci and Bom attend a typical movida party – with numerous transvestites, homosexuals and male prostitutes – in the back garden of a building where, a few floors above, a couple is caught amid a heated argument. The girl laments her boyfriend’s inattentiveness, disappointed at the lack of intimacy between them. Soon after, we will find out that he is, actually, a closeted homosexual: he can only climax when observing, through a pair of binoculars, the ‘elections’ taking place downstairs. The elections, in fact, see the male attendees exposing, measuring and comparing their penises. The campness of the sequence rests in its absurdity, as the parallel editing alternates between the two scenes which initially appear completely unrelated. The audience is plunged in the middle of the couple’s unintelligible argument, rendered even more bizarre by the fact that the girl, introduced first by the sound of her squeaking feminine voice, is in truth bearded.
The campness of the General Erections reverberates consistently throughout the film. Later on, the diegesis is halted to give space to a moment of disconnected metatextuality with Pepi’s fantasy TV advertisement for a new business idea. Almodóvar's ‘Ponte Bragas’ television segment is the cinematic homologous of Warhol’s 1962 ‘32 Campbell’s Soup Cans’ illustration. The spot makes absurd and vulgar claims about an innovative pair of ‘all-purpose panties’ and adopts television conventions – quick editing, voiceover and large written text – to create the feeling of an infomercial. The commercial is a playful depiction of the state of consumerist culture, where buyers are easily tricked into acquiring useless objects: Almodóvar proposes a ‘camp’ version of a TV advertisement to achieve a comic effect, while also maintaining an underlying sense of social commentary.
Almodóvar’s early filmmaking experimentations flirted with the camp aesthetic to queer narrative and formal conventions of the melodrama genre, to voice the stories of the subalterns of Spanish society – tales of unhinged female desire, sexual perversion, homosexuality and gender-nonconformity – while contributing to craft the director’s unique, kaleidoscopic, satirical style. Simultaneously committed to the pursuit of ‘immediate and visceral pleasure’ and ‘a culture of political amnesia’, the early works of Almodóvar respond to a camp sensibility that is both aesthetically and politically concerned.